The law of unintended consequences was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton. It is defined as unintended consequences are the outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action.

The state of California and the plumbing industry found one of these recently. According to a Los Angeles Times report, thanks to California Gov. Jerry Brown’s call in 2015 — as the state was in the middle of a four-year drought — for his constituents to reduce their water usage by 25%, the Golden State saved massive amounts of energy.

A research team from the University of California-Davis found that state residents saved 1,830 gigawatt hours of electricity from June 2015 to April 2016. Those savings are enough to power 274,000 average homes for one year. Additionally it reduced 521,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases or the equivalent of removing about 110,000 cars off the road for one year.

The research team found that 19% of California’s electricity demand is related to the pumping, conveying, distributing, heating and treatment of water.

Those are some impressive savings for the most populous state in our nation and it was not even on anyone’s radar.

“The scale of these integrated water-energy-greenhouse gas savings, achieved over such a short period, is remarkable,” said Frank Loge, a co-author of the work and a professor of environmental engineering at UC Davis in his report, according to the Times. “Even more interesting is that the cost of achieving these savings through water conservation was competitive with existing programs that specifically target electricity or greenhouse gas reductions.”

“The severity of this drought created a unique circumstance that allowed us to make a natural experiment,” said Edward Spang, associate director of the Center for Water-Energy Efficiency at UC-Davis and the first author on the report, according to the Times. “We wanted to demonstrate that there were additional benefits to all the hard work that everyone did to save water.”

As we all have heard throughout our time in this business, “as California goes, so goes the nation.” Well, here is another example to follow. This month’s pme cover story details how low-flow commercial faucet manufacturers are looking at the landscape on how to best develop products for the marketplace. Water- and energy-saving products continue to shape the plumbing industry.

I have faith there are massive amounts of positive unintended consequences for us to find in this industry, but it will require more risk-taking. It will require you to push passive clients into bolder thinking processes (and writing larger checks). And in the end, letting them take the glory when those results come in.

With the Super Bowl just in the books, California has set up the play for the rest of the nation to run. Who is willing to be as bold?


This article was originally titled “Found money” in the February 2018 print edition of PM Engineer.